Busy week, which meant I have only just caught up yesterday with Lucy Worsley’s excellent 90-minute documentary on the Blitz – the German bombing of London and other cities – during the Second World War. I have a personal connection to this as my late grandfather worked for London Fire Brigade during the war and was on a Thames river boat helping to fight fires – the smoke inhalation caused him life-long lung and breathing problems. I often thought it strange that my grandparents never talked about the war, and thinking it about more, I can only conclude that it was indeed grim, frightening and something they wanted to forget rather than overtly memorialise or mythologise. I think they wanted to get on with their lives; others may well have suffered from what is now recognised as PTSD. British Remembrance Day services still have the stoic feel – we want to remember if we must, but not too much – and so the focus is on cenotaphs, wreaths, poppies, and military music; detail of the actual suffering rarely features in the short services themselves. That is left to documentary makers, history books and the wider TV programmes that supplement the story at Remembrance time and there is welcome effort to obtain personal testimony to explain and properly remember how awful it was.
However, what was interesting about Lucy’s documentary was its largely revisionist approach to what the programmed entitled the ‘Blitz Spirit’. The myth of the Blitz was that, whatever Hitler could throw at Britain, London and other cities like Liverpool and Manchester ‘could take it’. Up yours, Adolf! The reality is somewhat more nuanced as the story of the Blitz, particularly in London, is told through the lives of front-line workers: a fireman, a voluntary nurse, an air raid warden, and the roof watcher (looking out for incendiary bombs and putting them out).
The personal stories are incredibly moving and emotional with the documentary focussing on the hardships of ordinary British people in 1940 and 1941 as they were bombed out of their homes, could not easily be re-housed, and for some people who lost everything. One of the interesting things is that you can see from the story of the Blitz the first emergence of the post-war British welfare state: ‘British Restaurants’ to feed the hungry (no one calls food banks in 21st century Britain ‘British Food Banks’) and rest centres and shelters to house the homeless. The efforts were imperfect by miles in 1941, but I find it interesting that the welfare state, which is criticised and demeaned by some in the Britain now in 2021 would not have occurred without the Second World War and the ‘Blitz’, the latter which is still seemingly so much revered in British popular culture today. Why one, and not the other?
How did the ‘Blitz Spirit’ and the continued reverence for Britain’s role in the Second World War come about? This is something else Worsley explores through the diary accounts of another East End London woman, who worked for ‘Mass Observation’ – a network of volunteers and employees who worked for the war-time Ministry of Information gathering intelligence on the public mood during ‘The Blitz’ and throughout the war. It seems the British Government was terrified the general population would grow weary of war and stop supporting the war effort, especially as the widely predicted horrors of aerial bombing were unleashed on the population. Any dips in the public mood had to be countered with poster campaigns – like the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ at the top of this blog post, to edited newspaper articles and even the delayed reporting of casualties for up to several weeks after the event. Images in newspapers like the Daily Mail cropped out bomb damaged buildings instead showing what is now an iconic image of St Paul’s Cathedral in London sticking out amongst the smoke and flames unscathed. Newspaper articles, newsreels shown in cinemas, and BBC radio were used as propaganda mechanisms to influence the actions of the population in how to handle an air-raid but also to present a positive message during The Blitz e.g. the RAF were shooting down more German planes (which was largely true, but there had been some set backs). So media manipulation of images and facts is not a new thing, especially in times of war.
However, the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster was never issued by the Ministry of Information – it was pulped because the content was thought too patronising according to Worsley. A copy survived and was found many years later in a Northumberland bookshop and has since entered 21st century popular culture as a meme for life when things are going wrong. You can buy copies now of that poster, or imprinted on mugs and t-shirts. But it was rarely, if never used during The Blitz. However historical sources like the newspaper articles, pictures and newsreels did enter the public domain and became ‘official’ records of war-time Britain and since the Second World War these images and ‘sources’ have come to inform British thinking about The Blitz, how older generations survived it, their attitudes, and quite possibly created a sense of British exceptionalism: ‘We beat Hitler and survived the Blitz, thank you very much!’
But a lot of people did not, there were over 40,000 civilian dead during 1940-1941 and there was considerable hardship for many thousands of others. An air-raid shelter, or a crowded Underground station was not a nice place to be – smelly, dirty, no toilets, and no food. Just the sort of conditions and worry that the British government realised could grind a war weary people down. So the public mood needed more positive images, including of bombed out Londoners for the newsreels with their smiles and thumbs up.
And so today here in Britain this mythology survives – no doubt there were endless counts of heroism and sacrifice, and Worsley’s documentary focusses on the action, brought from necessity, of British people helping each other out through volunteering and charity to get themselves through the horror, but it is these images that have endured, not the horror and the death.
That may well be natural human instinct for dealing with bad things that happen in life and is completely understandable, but the mythology of the Blitz Spirit has survived today into 21st century Britain. It is still found in newspapers and media reporting e.g. ‘we don’t need the EU – we stood alone against Hitler and survived’ to other aspects of popular culture, including when England and Germany play a football match! ‘Up Yours, Delors’ was a famous The Sun newspaper headline directed as a former head of the European Commission. Other events in the war also burst through into public mythology – the Dunkirk spirit is the same, but 300,000 soldiers evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940 was a crushing military defeat for the British. It was not a triumph.
The ‘fake news’ of the Second World War was done, largely benevolently, by the Government and its Ministry of Information to guard against the possibility that people would grow war weary and argue for a capitulation or surrender to the advancing armies of Hitler – a bad thing indeed if it had happened. In 1940, invasion of the British Isles was a real possibility, but that propaganda became part of the official accounts of war-time Britain and entered into the public consciousness as it was intended. But something to think about as we now contemplate what is wrong with the world, is whether this mythology has now been corrupted, abused by some elements (including political people), and caused harm to Britain in the last couple of decades? Has a misunderstanding of Britain’s role in WW2 and how aspects of it have survived into the historical record made the British complacent and encouraged misguided belief about what the country can do and expect from the rest of the world? I think there’s strong case that the answer is ‘yes’ and I will explore that some more in the future.
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